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Compared With 1989 in Beijing, Chicago '68 Was a Pacifist Tea Party

June 18, 1989|Tom Hayden | Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) is a member of the California Assembly

SACRAMENTO — To borrow the traditional rhetoric of the right-wing, why are we so soft on Chinese communism?

When a conservative legislator in Sacramento was denouncing Chinese repression the other day, my liberal Assembly colleague, John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), interrupted to ask, "What about Kent State?" It was an embarrassing example of what conservative Jeane J. Kirkpatrick once labeled the "blame America first" mentality of many liberal Democrats.

There is no comparison between Kent State and Tian An Men Square. Trigger-happy National Guardsmen at Kent State killed four students. The Chinese government was gunning at hundreds or thousands, the equivalent of executing the graduating classes at America's top universities. Richard M. Nixon at his most paranoid could never have contemplated what the Chinese rulers have ordered, approved--and covered up.

One national television commentator went so far as to compare the Chinese student leaders with me and Abbie Hoffman during the street insurgencies of the '60s. There are parallels between the Chinese student movement and the American New Left in the advocacy of participation in decision-making. But the level of oppression we faced was fundamentally different. We were threatened, beaten, vengefully prosecuted--and eventually vindicated for the Chicago protests in 1968. Had we been in Beijing, the tanks simply would have rolled over us like meat-grinders. Events in Chicago were televised for all Americans to see. The massacre in Beijing is denied by Chinese authorities and blacked out in their domestic press. Chicago was a pacifist tea party compared with Tian An Men Square, where there was probably more brutality inflicted on students than anywhere in the history of the world.

Influential statesmen like Henry A. Kissinger have shown an ironic softness on Chinese communism. Writing immediately before the massacre, Kissinger sympathetically explained that long revolutionary experience had made the Chinese leadership "fear chaos above all else," as if a crackdown might be an understandable defense mechanism. He also cautioned that the United States "must keep in mind the extraordinary sensitivity" of the Chinese toward U.S. criticism, as if low-keyed diplomacy would be more prudent.

If the U.S. Administration is drawn into a confrontation with China, it will be with the last-resort reluctance usually associated with doves. After the massacre, Secretary of State James A. Baker III echoed the measured line of Kissinger, reminding everyone that the Chinese had displayed "significant restraint" for several weeks and pointing out that there had been violence on both sides. A "senior Administrative official" noted soberly that "we cannot undermine 17 years of diplomacy because of one weekend." For balance, another "State Department specialist" made the tougher observation that "we are no longer dealing with that nice fuzzy China of panda bears." Such sage opinion is apparently what we pay the Central Intelligence Agency to provide.

Ever since Kissinger and others began "playing the China card" as a political strategy against the Soviets in the early '70s, the U.S. spin on China has been upbeat: a modern country where, besides exporting panda bears, the welcome mat is out for oil drilling, Hilton hotels, weapons dealers and American tourists.

These were our kind of communists, whose usefulness was their hostility to the Soviet Evil Empire. They still are. Even after the massacre, the "State Department specialist" cited China's "redeeming quality": "it sits next to the Soviet Union." That the Soviet Union is no longer engaged in a Cold War with either China or the United States is ignored, since it would expose the U.S. strategy as outmoded or bankrupt.

Downplayed in the rosy descriptions has been another China, the one that fostered, trained and supported the Khmer Rouge, who systematically exterminated one-third of the population of Cambodia. That little connection had to be minimized, even rationalized, as part of the "larger picture" of the U.S.-Soviet proxy conflict on Kissinger's world chessboard.

After Tian An Men Square it should be clear that the Chinese authorities and the Khmer Rouge share more than a tactical bond. Both represent a core attitude rarely found in the family of nations: the willingness to slaughter thousands of their innocent countrymen, indeed their "best and brightest," to preserve personal, party and state power.

Why? Is the reason inherent in Marxism? In the nature of monolithic power when threatened? In the panic of 80-year-old revolutionaries toward a new world?

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